Along with Beniapukur, Tiljala and Tangra, the other three main areas focused upon in the book, Topsia also happens to be among the city’s most densely populated Muslim neighbourhoods.
The stubborn, uninterrupted poverty of these places and their residents’ Muslim faith is the basis of Seabrook’s study into the lives of the Others. “There is a widespread view that little common ground exists between Muslims and the rest of humanity,” the author notes. “This has become axiomatic for many…who contrast our ‘progress’ with their ‘backwardness’.”
With the avowed intention of correcting this unhappy state of affairs, the British journalist and commentator stitches together a collage of urban lives caught in a whirlpool of crime, drugs, larceny, corruption, coercion, underdevelopment, ignorance, neglect, vote-bank politics and intrigues of land sharks.
Most unsettling is the premise of the book that pits wider society against the largely Urdu-speaking Muslim slum population in Kolkata, and by the strength of notion, in all of India. Even as most interviewees in People without History testify, it becomes obvious that their circumstances are often not uniquely different from those living in, say, Kolkata’s and the country’s Hindu-majority slums: the other Others. The vortex of death, addiction, decay and exploitative politics is common to every urban Indian slum. Is faith the only differential in the lives of the Muslim slum dweller in Beniapukur and the Hindu day labourer in Dum Dum and Behala?
Seabrook highlights the appalling lives of the poor and their tremendous urge to survive the odds in painstaking detail, but misses the forest for the trees. In the plight of the Muslims of Topsia, Beniapukur, Tiljala and Tangra resonates the plight of the city; one which has seen the flight of capital and opportunities to more profitable and less-politicized shores, leaving behind barely enough for all its citizens. Since then it has been a narrative of shared struggle and common shame across communities in the city.
Take, for instance, the story of Qutubuddin Ansari, which hasn’t found a place in the book. Ansari was referred to as the “face of the 2002 Gujarat riots” after the photograph of the Muslim’s tailor’s horror-struck face pleading for life was splashed in the media. Ansari would find a home in Kolkata after the state government pledged support to rebuild his life and business. In less than a year, Ansari would go back to Gujarat and his tailoring business. The promise of peace brought him to Kolkata; the lack of prospects saw him return.
It could have been the story of a city.
Shamik Bag reviews “People without History— India’s Muslim Ghettos” by Jeremy Seabrook and Imran Ahmed Siddiqui in Mint Lounge. More Here